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FAQ City: Your Questions About Protesting And Policing Answered

Protesters demonstrate near the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department headquarters on May 30, 2020.
Jesse Steinmetz
Protesters demonstrate near the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department headquarters on May 30, 2020.

It’s been about two months since protests first erupted in Charlotte over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Here, across the U.S. and the world, people took to the streets to demonstrate against police brutality and the mistreatment of Black people. We’ll take a look back at those protests and answer your questions about policing and protesting.

When did the Charlotte protests start?

In Charlotte, protests erupted on May 29. 

A crowd of about 250 people gathered outside a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department office on Beatties Ford Road. Eventually, officers fired tear gas. CMPD said 15 people were arrested that night and charged with failing to disperse. 

Later in the evening, officers were called to a Food Lion on Beatties Ford Road where protesters had broken windows and stolen merchandise.

The next day, Charlotte City Council declared a state of emergency. Officials didn’t issue a curfew. Protests across Charlotte continued for the next several weeks and some groups are continuing demonstrations.

How many organizations and individuals have protested?

We don’t know the exact number, but lots of different groups have participated in protests, including, among others, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg branch of the NAACP, the Million Youth March of Charlotte and Salisbury, Kidz Fed Up, Charlotte Uprising and the Charlotte Liberation Party. 

It’s hard to say how many people in total have protested, but at least one protest drew an estimated 6,000 people. 

How many people who were arrested were proven paid organizers? (Submitted by Dorothy)

We don’t know if anyone was paid to protest, but we do know that the majority of people arrested at the initial protests were local. WFAE reviewed a list of arrests from May 29 to June 5, the first seven days of protests in the city.

According to that analysis, 125 people were arrested. Ninety-nine of those people had addresses listed on their arrest records, and 86 of those addresses were from Mecklenburg and surrounding counties.

Some protesters have said they want to ‘demilitarize’ or ‘defund’ the police. What does that mean? (Submitted by Chris)

Actually, there’s a lot of confusion over what that means, said Maulin Chris Herring, a professor of criminal justice at North Carolina Central University. 

“One of the challenges with the concept of the phrase ‘defunding police’ -- it’s still developing,” Herring said. 

“I think sometimes it became a catchphrase and people hooked onto it. And that’s created its own frustration and confusion from different aspects of the community.”

Herring said sometimes people mean they want to completely abolish the police department and sometimes they mean taking away some funds from the department and allocating them elsewhere, like to social services.

The word “demilitarize” means getting rid of military characteristics. 

Some local police departments buy and use military weaponry like armored vehicles and grenade launchers. Some activists think they should be prohibited from having them.

What happened at the June 2 protest in Charlotte?

On June 2, according to a video filmed by local publication Queen City Nerve, hundreds of protesters were marching along Fourth Street in uptown. Then CMPD officers fired tear gas and pepper balls from both ends of the protest, seemingly leaving protesters no way out. 

CMPD said officers warned protesters to disperse before they used tear gas. 

Several groups filed a lawsuit after the incident, including the local NAACP chapter, the ACLU of North Carolina and Charlotte Uprising. A Superior Court judge signed a temporary restraining order to block police from using riot control agents like tear gas on peaceful protesters.

The State Bureau of Investigation reviewed the June 2 incident and found that protesters had two paths of escape. But, according to the SBI review, those escape routes required traveling through other kinds of crowd-dispersing chemicals. 

After the incident, then-CMPD Chief Kerr Putney said the department was changing its chemical munitions policy. The changes included requiring officers to give “clear and precise directions” on a path demonstrators can take when a dispersal order is given. 

Later, CMPD said it was making further changes to the policy. At a Charlotte City Council committee meeting, incoming Chief Johnny Jennings said that the department would no longer fire chemical munitions at demonstrators from multiple directions.

“That policy change will prohibit that kind of activity within part of our plans for the disbursement as well,” Jennings said. 

On June 8, Charlotte City Council voted 9 to 2 to prohibit CMPD from buying tear gas during the next fiscal year, which started in July. 

What is tear gas?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, tear gas is a broad term for a group of chemical compounds that irritate people’s eyes, mouth, throat, lungs and skin.

Tear gas is actually a liquid or powder -- not a gas -- that can be released in the air as fine droplets or particles. It was first used in World War I. 

Is tear gas outlawed for use in war by the Geneva Convention? (Submitted by Robert and Gene)

Yes. In 1925, the Geneva Convention categorized tear gas as a chemical warfare agent and banned its use in wars.

Anna Feigenbaum, who wrote the book “Tear Gas: From the Battlefield of World War I to the Streets of Today,” spoke with WFAE’s Charlotte Talks in July.

“So after the First World War ended, there was this big push to keep the chemical developments going. And we have to bear in mind, 10% of all U.S. chemists are enlisted into the war effort, massive chemical corporations are making loads of profit off of this,” Feigenbaum said.

In the 1990s, there was international pressure to also ban law enforcement from using tear gas.

“That obviously got pushback from many countries that said, ‘Well, we can’t really give up this weapon, because if we don’t use tear gas, we will have to resort to more lethal weapons,’” said Jamil Dakwar, the director of the ACLU’s human rights program, in a 2019 interview with Public Radio International.

Dakwar said at the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention countries compromised that police could continue to use tear gas to disperse riots.

How is the phrase 'Black Lives Matter' different from 'All Lives Matter?' (Submitted by John) 

“What that resonates to me is that African Americans have been disproportionately incarcerated in this country. They have been disproportionately arrested in this country,” said Anita Bledsoe-Gardner, an associate professor of criminology at Johnson C. Smith University. 

“So I don’t think ‘Black Lives Matter’ is ‘all lives don’t matter.’ I think the movement in and of itself is framed in such a way to bring more awareness of the fact of these social injustices.”

Bledsoe-Gardner said “Black Lives Matter” is not meant to take anything away from how much other people’s lives -- or other races -- are valued.

Have any coronavirus cases been linked to the Charlotte protests?

Mecklenburg County Public Health Director Gibbie Harris said in late June that it’s hard to tell.

Harris said the coronavirus has spread so much in the Charlotte area that there are too many potential places people could have caught it.

“Even if people tell us they've been to a protest, we cannot automatically assume that’s where they were exposed,” Harris said. “They may have been the cause for exposure at protests because they were already positive when they went there. There’s just no way to know.”

North Carolina health officials have said they haven’t seen any case clusters because of protests. They said that could be because the protests happened outside or because many participants were wearing masks. State health officials also point out that the protests started not long after North Carolina started reopening some businesses. 

But people who have been to a protest should get tested for the coronavirus, according to state Health and Human Services Director Mandy Cohen. 

What happens when the protests are over? Where do we go from here? (Submitted by Alisa)

Herring, the North Carolina Central University professor, said he’s hopeful to see so many more people of different races and different generations coming together at these protests. 

He said that the group that marched on Washington during the civil rights movement had specific demands and that current protests could benefit from that. 

“Specifically, 'We’re rioting or protesting specifically for this platform to be addressed.’ If you don't have that, unfortunately, we might be talking about another incident like this, five, two, three years from now,” Herring said.

“We need to stop having moments and start having movements,” said Bledsoe-Gardner, the Johnson C. Smith professor.

“Moments happen when people get enraged about events, singular events that have occurred. We’re in a state in this country where we need a movement of something to change.”


Do you have more questions about the coronavirus or anything else related to the Charlotte area? Share it with us in the box below. The WFAE newsroom is continuing to report on how the virus is impacting the Charlotte region, and your questions and story ideas keep us going.

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